Music is one of those things, you know? It connects to all of us in some way, shape, or form. It is a pillar of civilization. It is an identifier of culture. It exists in every language and is, in fact, a language of it’s own with many different dialects. Everyone has a relation to music. Even the deaf experience music through vibration, dance, and flowing, expressive sign language. It’s one of the most complex and intricate sciences, and one of the most respected and disciplined arts.
When I tell you that I’ve “left music”, I’m not saying that I’ve stopped listening to it. I’m not saying that I hear a song come on the radio and immediately turn it off. I’m not saying that any mention of a musical instrument causes me to break out in hives, or the sound of someone singing causes me anguish. I’m not writing this to tell you not to play the piano or guitar. I don’t want you to put down your drumsticks. I don’t want you to quit your church choir.
What I mean is, I used to be “a musician”.
I was a musical child. Now, you may have been or have known a musical child. They start instrument lessons at an early age. They play in recitals. They play for churches. Maybe they play a quick song for a family reunion. Perhaps a talent show here and there…
I was a band geek into high school, but my particular high school band experience was a step back from what I had been performing during my home schooled years. It did bring it’s own challenges when my band director asked me to take up the timpani. I had never considered timpani up until that point, but my never-ending desire to feel needed took over and I agreed. I found a purpose with timpani that I didn’t have with mallet percussion. The mallets have a certain level of skill, but I found I excelled far beyond with the challenge that the kettle drums presented. I took great pride in my newfound talent and ownership of the instruments that, while I never personally owned, became a part of my very soul. When I graduated high school, I knew music was going to be my thing.
Most of this first portion of the story is dedicated to my college experience: a foundation I thought would be the pillars of my career. Instead, it was a whole new world for which I was in no way prepared. Because my small Christian college relied on majors to fund their professors’ salaries, most of the departments and programs accepted pretty much anyone that declared their major. The academic bulletin had a list of requirements for entry to the music program. I had prepared for keyboard proficiency and basic music theory as I had learned to do from reading the program description, only to never be given the test. Instead, the professors expected me to perform a solo piece. I had never had a formal timpani or symphonic percussion instructor to give me solo repertoire. My Advisor (not a percussionist) gave me a piece that he thought I could sight-read on marimba with one of the older flute majors for the very first “masterclass”– actually, it was more of a pre-recital, and not a traditional masterclass, so I’ll call it what it is– “pre-recital” of the school year, where we played our pieces for the department (both professors and majors) one week before we would play for the public.
There wasn’t a factor leading up to the pre-recital performance that didn’t seem sabotaged. First, my part in the piece was in bass clef and written for bassoon. I can read the clef for timpani and piano, and in theory marimba shouldn’t be different. However, marimba is generally played in treble clef, and because of that (and I don’t know if it’s an actual psychological excuse or if it’s just a personal problem) Advisor was essentially asking me to relearn the clef while learning an unfamiliar piece. To make matters worse, the flutist had her own stuff going on and kept putting off our practices to the point where we never practiced together. She and I prepared the piece at drastically different tempos and I still hadn’t completely relearned bass clef by the time it was our turn to perform for the professors. I told her that I didn’t feel ready, and she shrugged it off. As an upperclassman, she was used to dealing with far more experienced musicians that were able to show up and do things on the spot. In hindsight, I should have been that advanced even as an incoming freshman.
The performance was a disaster. I highly doubt it even qualifies as a performance. The flutist counted us off, but we were out of sync before the second measure. I swallowed my fears and tried to press on, but four measures in and she stopped us and said, “What are you doing?” I told her where I thought we were, and she told me where she thought we were. The professors were upset with us, but even though I could have argued that the flutist’s lack of professionalism had contributed to the disaster, it was clear they placed most of the blame on me. They dismissed her without a single critique and then didn’t hold back with their disappointment in my playing. I was humiliated in front of the entire department. Even though I was an excellent percussionist in the wind symphony, had I shown no solo talent or potential. They had been expecting something more.
That night, less than two weeks into college, set a precedence for the next four years. I was pretty average in the standard music classes (such as music theories and ear training and sight singing) and even had superior expertise with percussion in the wind symphony. But in recitals and solo-related content, it was obvious from the beginning that I was the bottom of the talent pool. I didn’t have a percussion instructor, so my Advisor (who is actually a clarinetist with brass as his secondary area and also the Wind Symphony director) had me learning snare drum techniques–techniques any incoming percussion major should have known. It wasn’t my first experience with snare, so I learned the rudiments quickly. But since I wasn’t practicing anything else besides marimba scales and had no real repertoire, I performed the snare techniques in my required recitals. I played several with little snare etudes that were written at a high school level. One of the older majors played bass drum to “fill it in”. I received verbal praise and the worst anyone said was “Well, that was different“, but I always felt like my snare performances were a joke. I hated them. They were there to fulfill a requirement. There was nothing musical or even academic about them. I didn’t have a percussion instructor to assign me anything of real substance, and I didn’t have the self drive to overcompensate by doing my own research. I did dig up “Under the Sea” from the Little Mermaid and learned to play it on marimba for a single recital, but with no piano accompaniment, it sounded elementary and I was never fully satisfied…and, since I’m being completely honest, I also thought it turned into a joke. I tried to laugh it off with everyone else, but I knew my credibility as a musician would not be easy to redeem.
My sophomore year is when it really went off the rails. I finished my hated snare drum requirements and moved on to timpani etudes. They were a little more interesting than the snare stuff, but not at all the type of music our usual recital audience was expecting. I often had disagreements with my Advisor in my percussion lessons over timing and entrances, a habit that ended up transferring into my ensemble life. After several weeks, I realized that there wasn’t a wind symphony rehearsal that went by where I was not openly criticized in front of the entire wind symphony. I did my best to improve, but nothing seemed to help. It all came to a head right after my midterm exams that fall.
A little backstory might be required here. When I was in high school and attended the college-level recruiting events (music festivals mostly) I met this kid named…oh, let’s call him Chad. Chad and I were the same class but at different feeder schools, and we both knew we were going to major in music with our primary emphasis on percussion. However, when fall of 2011 came, he went to a different college to pursue a double major in music and something else like pre-med. (I don’t really know, I don’t keep up with the guy.) In high school, he basically did everything better than me except for the mallet instruments, which had been my forte. I had a suspicion I was better at timpani, but I never got the chance to really evaluate that suspicion. Well, like I said, he didn’t come to our school and I ended up being the only percussion major of that generation. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about the competition. Full disclosure, much of my freshman year I thanked God that we weren’t at the same school for comparison. Much of my underclassman years I was convinced that they would have asked me to leave the program if they hadn’t needed a primary percussionist in their ensembles or even just for department demographics. I would’ve never experienced the grace I did if Chad was around.
So we went on tour to this feeder school–Chad’s alma mater. I didn’t expect to see him at all since he was supposed to be at our sister school across the country. I was annoyed that we couldn’t take our own timpani because of space (and really, you shouldn’t be traveling all over Texas with timpani anyway) but was assured their timpani there would be in good order. I was not surprised but was highly disappointed to find that the provided timpani had not been used, tuned, or maintained since Chad graduated a year and a half before. The music teacher had also lost the drum key and so the timpani were in terrible shape, terrible tune, and, by extension, played terrible. During our performance rehearsal (not the clinic with the feeder kids) the director, my Advisor, got upset and lectured me in front of the entire group (but what else was new) and all I had for him were excuses. His solution was to treat the timpani– pitched instruments–like the bass drum. He didn’t seem to understand that his solution was only making my performance even more terrible, no matter how hard I tried to overcompensate for the disaster the instruments were in (and I did try, I just decided to spare you all the technical solutions and their jargon).
When it came time to do our clinic with the high schoolers, Chad walked in. (Like I said, I don’t keep up with the guy so I’m not sure why he was home instead of at college) and greeted the director like they were old buddies. I didn’t think much of it other than “oh, great, it’s Chad”. But then, not ten minutes later, in the middle of a clinic, did he stop the entire group from the middle of a song, criticize my playing, and then said, “Let Chad do it”.
The ensemble continued without me for the rest of the clinic. There was nothing for me to do. My other percussionists had their jobs, and the high school mallet percussionist was already quite proficient and is actually to this day an amazing musician in all aspects, so there wasn’t much for me to do except sit around and feel sorry for myself. I asked my friends, some of whom were older members of the group, if my playing was really that bad? Was I really that off? Unfortunately, the only answers I got were all along the lines of, “I just can’t tell from where I sit.”
That day I realized that my advisor had also been expecting to have two incoming music majors in 2011, and that he was disappointed when the one that actually showed up was me instead of Chad. I watched Chad play the timps with the same limitations I had moments before, and Advisor praised his playing instead of criticizing it, even though I saw little if any difference in the final product. The realization was then solidified in my brain that I was a disappointment from the beginning, and I could never be “Chad” to my director–or even the other professors. It was a crushing revelation.
I guess I should acknowledge that the superiority Chad comes by innocently doesn’t make him a bad person. Or I could just tell you that I rolled my eyes when I did some Facebook stalking to discover that he’s a doctor now.
My dad unexpectedly passed away between the semesters my sophomore year, and my grandfather six weeks after that. I never wanted their deaths to give me any sort of allowances or short cuts. I went back to school immediately. I missed a few days for the memorials and funerals, and all the stress boiled up until my immune system crashed and I vomited all over our loading dock floor right before a concert (true story, also disgusting) and also got a bad case of bronchitis that lasted the entire last quarter of the semester. However, I powered through it all and my life continued as usual. My Advisor was sympathetic much of the time, especially in classes outside of the ensemble. I still got in trouble in wind symphony, and several times I was not at fault. (For example, my bass drum player forgot her mallets for a performance, leading me to be lectured in front of the entire group while she wasn’t even scolded for tardiness. His reasoning was that I was principal percussionist and the equipment was my responsibility, even thought by his own standards it wasn’t true). And I have to say this: while being tough on a musician can make them strive for perfection (and I did, if for no other reason than to get my Advisor off my back) it honestly came to a point where I never knew if I was the problem or just a habit he had created.
A redemption of my sophomore year was Dr. E. He was brought into the department to build a string orchestra program and teach our upper division music classes. I hardly ever saw him outside of department meetings that first year. He asked me to do a few orchestra concerts and gave me a few instructions for orchestral playing and context and things like that–things that percussion majors (especially timpanists) at any major university would have learned in their first year. But not me. By my fourth semester of college, I was barely treading water without any instruction and no idea what the real world of percussion was like, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even have the motivation to find out on my own. The professors were letting me just do my own thing, and my advisor (while supposedly reaching out to people to find me a “real” teacher) seemed to have higher priorities. Even though Dr. E didn’t give me private lessons, I quickly realized that he was giving me opportunities to grow as a musician any little way he could.
My junior year I played with the orchestra a day or two a week instead of for an occasional performance, and Dr. E was also the professor for two of my upper division classes. Now, it’s not like he ever got upset with me or my classmates. In fact, we upset him a lot that fall semester of 2013. But when he got upset, I always understood why. When he criticized me in orchestra, I never doubted that I was wrong and I knew exactly how to fix it. In fact, he fixed many of the problems I had in Wind Symphony by changing the way he explained something, but–even more importantly–by admitting that the director isn’t always right.
Don’t get me wrong, the director is always right. That is the number #1 rule of ensembles. Rule #2 is that if the director happens to be wrong, see Rule #1. However, one of the biggest criticisms I got in wind symphony would be my timing and dragging or rushing rhythms. The director (my Advisor) always said the same thing, “You’re not watching!” I was many times convinced his conducting was off. I would stare the heck out of his baton and try to synchronize my movements to his, but if there was so much as a twitch (from me or him) he would stop everything and call me out. I could never say anything (although I did and then lived to regret it) because, you know, Rule #1. My stomach was already in knots the first time it happened with Dr. E. But instead of accusing me of not watching, he instead told me, “Hear the tempo, keep the tempo. You’re the conductor now. I’m working on cuing sections and marking the measure, the orchestra is following you.” That’s all he said. I had been missing an important component of ensemble playing with my hyper-focus on following the conductor, but those words cured me instantly. I never lagged or rushed again in his orchestra or in wind symphony ever again. He didn’t expect me to watch his every movement because he expected me to hold my own as the backbone of the orchestra, as opposed to the other director that expected me to stare at his hand until my eyes fell out. Dr. E’s instruction really taught me my place as a timpanist in any given ensemble and gave me a confidence that I didn’t have my first two years as a music major.
Partially because of Dr. E and his (what I thought were) revolutionary instructions, I began to climb back up a ladder of respect my junior year. The trumpet section (which contained no majors or minors and had been left without leadership after their principle dropped out) got the brunt of the criticisms that year. The few times I was openly criticized and it wasn’t my fault (and again, it’s not like there weren’t times that it was and I knew it) I had the gumption to stand up for myself. I had some allies in the group that would speak up for me as well. One of my percussionists was a violin major, and he was known for having near-perfect pitch and exceptional sight reading skills within the department. On one occasion, the director disagreed with my reading of a specific rhythm several times. My reading of the rhythm never changed, and I had to show it to the violin major and get his shared opinion before the director would take me seriously. After instances like this happened a few times, I noticed that my criticisms became few and far between.
My relationship with Advisor improved further when he was no longer my private lesson instructor. I was now learning from a local high school teacher who had majored in percussion in his undergrad. He wasn’t the “professional” that my advisor had promised, but in my first couple of months with Mr. W, I already learned more than I had from two years with Advisor. He introduced me to the world of solo percussion repertoire. He was chill and understanding of my issues, and even found time to research any questions I asked him (which, after teaching music myself, I’m extra appreciative of the time he took to help me progress to the level I needed to be). He knew I wasn’t at par, but he also seemed to recognize that I wasn’t completely at fault, and he did his best to catch me up. I finally felt like I was getting the instruction I really needed, the instruction that every other major in the department had from their freshman year. I practiced with excitement knowing that I wouldn’t be a joke anymore.
But that’s when a whole new chapter of failures began.
Here’s an instance: my junior year we had a scheduled recital in October, as we did every month. Because of the deaths in my family, as well as the complete lack of repertoire from my advisor, I had missed out on almost all recitals my fourth semester. It had become somewhat of a running joke that I was the only major allowed to miss them. Now that I was in my fifth semester and practicing as an upper classman with new vigor, finally learning my craft, I had waited until I thought my song was ready before showing up for pre-recital. My teacher was supportive of me but couldn’t come to the screening performance. It went well, from what I remember. I didn’t get any criticisms or a private talk after. I had positive feedback. I felt ready to perform. The recital was going to be instrumentalists only since it would be while the choir was on tour. I didn’t see a reason for them to keep me out of it.
The day before the recital, the department had an outing to the opera. We were scheduled to leave right after wind symphony. The majority of our majors were in the ensemble, and since choir wouldn’t leave until the next day, the vocalists that overlapped were still around. During beginning announcements, the director (still my Advisor) promoted the recital. He started naming off the participants present–a couple of pianists, a saxophone major, a flutist, etc. Two of my best friends sat in the front row and constantly said my name to remind him, and eventually all the participants were like “What about Ann?” and then, he said, “Oh, Ann won’t be performing tomorrow, she’ll be doing it next month.” Understandably, I cried, “What?” and, in front of the entire ensemble, I was told that I had not made the cut. The rest of the class I could barely concentrate, I was so livid. I had worked so hard, and it clearly meant nothing. I ranted to my friends all the way to Dallas and back. I was in such a sour mood that I even snapped at the department chair when he asked me to switch vans. Looking back, I’m sure he realized why I was really upset, because he didn’t push it. (By the way, I’m sorry about that, if you’re reading this.)
Advisor was embarrassed about it and apologized for the awkward way I found out later, blaming Dr. E for not talking to me (which isn’t Dr. E’s job, it’s my Advisor’s) but I never found out why they took me out, or who had the final say. It won’t surprise you to know that the November recital also didn’t include me, since it was vocal only. I played in one recital my junior year, and it was many months later. I did have a solo performance with orchestra accompaniment late in the year, the closest I came to a featured performance (again, Dr. E doing his best to give me a rounded education).
Now that I was nearing the end of my college career, I focused more on my methods classes (music education, essentially) and building my ensemble leadership. My junior and senior year I had a solid group of percussionists, and we even had featured pieces in our annual festival, traditionally our biggest audience. A few years in a row, I had a large part in the leadership of the percussion ensemble pieces, although it often went unrecognized. I still considered our group performances a personal accomplishment, and I had a good relationship with the people I worked with.
My emphasis on group and ensemble work combined with my lack of solo performance to contribute to a condition known as performance anxiety: in the vernacular, stage fright. I had always been nervous for auditions or featured moments (and as the university’s only timpanist, I had plenty of those). But when it came to solo performances, I realized that I was incapable of performing on the same level that I practiced. I continued to fail pre-recital performances and was only in one recital my senior year– my own senior recital.
To this day, I consider my senior recital to be my biggest personal failure. It wasn’t as dramatic a failure as that screw-up two weeks into college four years before. Most of the audience wasn’t informed enough to understand the level of mistakes I made. Even worse: the most difficult piece of my recital was only junior-level repertoire. My audience didn’t know it, but I was drowning in shame over every mistake because it should have been easy. And the truth is that only a few days before my recital, I could play every piece perfectly. My accompanists can even tell you so. But I knew before I ever got out on stage that it was all going to go to hell. And it did. I blanked on a piece I practiced for two years and had performed memorized twice before. I missed a vital note at the end of a marimba cadence. I had a pivotal timpani cadenza that I switched the sticking, and the climatic visual was lost. The two ensemble pieces at the end, which I had prepared and directed myself, were the only pieces that went well at all. The next day I parked on the far side of my dormitory parking lot and cried for an hour. All of that hard work and four years of waiting for an opportunity to prove myself had meant nothing.
And so, in spite of all the progress I thought I’d made, my colligate career ended with a failure that haunts me to this day. My professors were nice to me about it. The project even got an A. But on the inside, I felt it was because they knew it didn’t really matter. I was going to be a teacher, and not a professional musician. In a way, the recital felt like a poetic end to the struggle I had in my education.
To be clear, I have a lot of great memories from college. In fact, for a long time I considered those years to be the happiest of my life. Music wasn’t only a part of my life back then: it was my life. I spent two hours in tears after my graduation because I thought I’d never play timpani again (although I did for several years after, I have not since spring of 2019). I spent the next five years looking back fondly on the memories I shared with my friends, both in and out of the music department.
I was really convinced that it would all come together when I stepped foot into the real world, but alas, as you will read in Part Two, consequences did not improve from there.